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Is spoofing a registration form to gain access to a website ethical? How about using a service like BugMeNot?

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Ethics questions are, by their very nature, subjective. –  sangretu Jul 24 '09 at 14:46

8 Answers 8

Well, if registration forms are asking too much of the user than he is willing to provide then the people administering the site (a) probably know this already or (b) are blissfully oblivious to this fact and don't know any better.

In any case, providing false information in the net to maintain some privacy is entirely common and I think nothing that's exactly unethical. It's just how people tend to react when asked for more than they are willing to provide.

Steve Krug, in his book Don't make me think1, has a template mail (a usability researcher can send to his boss) that details the problems (p. 182f.):

Anyone who uses the Web has run into this many times: You decide to subscribe to an email newsletter (or request a free sample, register a product, or create an account). Anything that involves you providing information about yourself and getting something in return.

You click "Subscribe" and a form appears. It looks longer than you expected, and you quickly discover why. For no good reason, you're being asked to provide your mailing address. And your phone number. And your occupation. Suddenly, quick task has become a project.

Usability professionals have a technical term for this practice. It's what we call "a very bad idea."

I can understand that it's tempting to try to get as much personal data as you can, given the uses you can put it to. The problem is that people filling in any kind of form on the Web are always asking themselves, "Why are they asking me for this piece of information? Do they really need it to give me what I want?" If the answer is no, then the next question is, "Then what do they want it for?"

In most people's minds there are only two possible explanations: either (a) you're so clueless about the Web that you don't know that they find this offensive, or (b) you do know, but you want the information badly for some other purpose, and you don't mind offending them to get it.

As a result, there are three serious downsides to asking for more than what you need:

  • It tends to keep you from getting real data. As soon as people realize you're asking for more than you need, they feel completely justified in lying to you. I often tell my clients that email addresses are like heroin to marketing people—so addictive that it doesn't strike them as odd that 10 % of their subscribers happen to be named "Barney Rubble."
  • You get fewer completed forms. The formula is simple: the less data you ask for, the more submissions you'll get. People tend to be in an enormous hurry on the Web, and if the form looks even a little bit longer than they expect, many just won't bother.
  • It makes you look bad. People who really want your newsletter may jump through whatever hoops they have to, but make no mistake: it will diminish their impression of you while they're doing it. On the other hand, if you only ask for the information you need, you've established a relationship with them and can get more data later in subsequent exchanges.

So, based on that I'd really say you don't need to feel wrong or unethical if you're providing false or rubbish data, it's more a case of a clueless site designer or manager somewhere ignoring some general thruths about how people work and behave on the Web.

I certainly won't feel bad giving companies an @spamgourmet.com email address, a name like "nklsdr" and a birth date somewhen in 1782. They asked for it, after all.

1 Steve Krug: Don't make me think: A common-sense approach to Web usability. Second edition, New Riders, Berkeley 2006.

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+1 for Don't Make Me Think –  ChrisF Jul 24 '09 at 15:00
Do you not think that it's unethical to unilaterally decide that they've made a mistake and just choose to ignore their requests as a result? –  Jon Hopkins Jul 24 '09 at 15:43
@johannes, is your argument "It's ethical to lie when they are incompetent"? Fine by me if we want to keep giving false info to websites, but we can't rationalize it as ethical. –  hyperslug Jul 24 '09 at 17:57
Actually you are right, I'm sidestepping the ethics question a little here. It is simply a fact about how humans approach such things. Still, consider you'd be forced by complete strangers to tell them personal details about you in order that you can get or do something where you know that level of detail is not required. You have three choices, as I see it: (a) tell the truth (which they have no means of verifying), (b) back out and give up what you wanted to get/do, (c) tell them what they want to hear and move on. –  Joey Jul 24 '09 at 20:28
As for the ethics of that, that's up to everyone individually. For me it really doesn't matter very much as I give them what they want to hear; whether they can use it or not is not my problem. It's different when the state asks about information as giving false info there can have legal consequences. But for something that clearly isn't a contract and where there is clearly not that much information needed I, for myself, consider it ethical, yes. –  Joey Jul 24 '09 at 20:30

Meh! My dog (now deceased) is registered at an astonishing number of web sites. My cats (one soon to be deceased, alas) are also registered. I figured it was unethical to continue using a deceased dogs name, so I switched over to live cats.

On the internet, no one can tell if you are a dog (or cat!)!

Though when he gets doggy spam, it is way too funny!

As a funny anecodote, there was a free email service, Myrealbox, based on NetMail and as soon as they added calendaring, my dog booked me into a recurring appointment twice a day, morning and evening, feed me.

So that is just plain strange. The amusing part is that this discovered a bug in the recurrance code, and at a conference years later, I met some of the developers and this story came up, and they were all very amused to find the guy, whose dog, found a tricky bug case for them. They asked for a picture of him for the office.

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...I don't get it. –  David Pearce Jul 24 '09 at 14:54

The word "ethical" is based on "ethos", which can be defined as "the distinctive spirit of a culture or an era".

In other words, you're asking whether or not the culture you're in would find such activities to go against the generally accepted status quo.

Different sub-cultures (sub-ethos) would answer this question differently. For example, the owners of commercial websites would probably find the activity very unethical, whereas a group of tech-savvy privacy advocates would find it completely acceptable.

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Dude, you're thinking too hard. He asked for an opinion, not a meta-answer... –  Telemachus Jul 24 '09 at 15:16
Yes! This answer is indeed what you should get when asking about ethics. –  Ilari Kajaste Nov 11 '09 at 12:47

No, if you have to spoof it pretty much by definition it can't be ethical.

People have the right to create web sites and put whatever constraints on them they wish.

You have the right to use the website with the constraints, or if you don't like the constraints you can not use the website. You don't have the right to ignore the constraints.

Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with people questioning what the websites do, believing it to be wrong, immoral or bad for business, however I believe the correct response is to walk away rather than to engage dishonestly.

The reason for this is primarily that (a) I think it sends the clearest message - the people who run these sites will measure registered users which they use to drive ad revenue and so on so just not engaging with them is far clearer than spoofing, and (b) because of this I believe it serves the greater good best - if the businesses get the message then everyone benefits when they change their practices, not just a small number of people who circumvent the process.

People raised the question of user names seeming to imply that they're inherently dishonest. This may or may not be true (I actually think it's not - there is no suggestion that Tyrannosaurs is my real name and it's clearly distinct from the real name I've entered which is visible to the admins) but I'm not really interested one way or the other.

But my point doesn't concern absolute standards, merely the honesty of a "transaction" between two parties. That said I'd suggest that even if you do believe in an absolute standard - that certain things are correct and should be adhered to - surely you've got to ask how you reach the widest possible implementation of that? I'd suggest dishonesty isn't the best route and either constructive engagement or disengagement will be more productive.

For all the talk of what websites do being wrong (which suggests a concern for the greater good), or being bad for business (which suggests concern for the company), I'd suggest that the primary beneficiary of spoofing is the person who spoofs, and in any situation where I see that I'd suggest that the motivation is largely, if not entirely selfish which strongly suggests to me that it's not ethical behaviour.

In terms of the idea that business expect it, I see that as no defense. I expect spam because I have a mail account but it's still not right.

(All - I've deleted almost all my comments and incorporated them into the answer).

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Do the creators of the websites count on every user entering true information though? Hardly. –  Stefan Thyberg Jul 24 '09 at 14:21
I find it quite common to question the ethical motives of those running the websites though, especially when they ask me to fill in things such as real name, email, address, etc. I especially loathe websites which make me register to download a trial of something, for example. Maybe a follow-up for this question is what kind of information is ethical to require for what kind of service? –  Stefan Thyberg Jul 24 '09 at 15:09
So is your name...really "Tyrannosaurs"? :) –  hyperslug Jul 24 '09 at 16:27
@Hyperslug: Nailed it! –  Telemachus Jul 24 '09 at 17:07
All - comments removed and entered into the main answer to stop this turning into a discussion board. –  Jon Hopkins Jul 24 '09 at 18:29

Well, when presented with a form asking too much details, I will likely provide obviously bogus info - it is fair enough, since if they really care they will terminate my account. (and I clearly admit the information is bogus)

Let's elaborate on that - I am registering for some service, talking face to face with a clerk. He asks me some very personal and unreasonable detail. I am telling him something obviously bogus. (for instance that Flying Spaghetti Monster is my deity)

If it is not critical to his business he will carry on, otherwise I just walk away.

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FSM is not bogus, I happen to know several practicing Pastafarians ;-) –  David Z Jul 24 '09 at 17:13
This conjures a WEIRD image in my head. –  bobobobo Aug 8 '09 at 14:43

If someone asks you a question and you lie, then yes that is unethical.

But you might question their ethics when they ask for your telephone number and will likely add you to a spam-calling list, to a make a couple of dollars.

Do two wrongs make a right? Not really.

Probably the right thing to do would be to not use those sites you are not willing to provide real information to.

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I seem to recall awhile back, there being some legal activity in the US proposing to make false registration for online services specifically against the law. Not sure if that got buried, or if they managed to hide it and slip it in...

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I would actually have no issue with that. It's effectively gaining goods or services (in this case information) under false pretences. –  Jon Hopkins Jul 24 '09 at 15:00
@Tyronnosaurs: and will ruin business of thousandths of web-sites, which demand such information, when they don't really need it. –  EFraim Jul 24 '09 at 15:03
@EfraimL - If they do dumb stuff they go out of business, that's the way it works. If that happens I suspect they change what they do, behaviour alters and everyone benefits, not just those who ignore the restrictions. –  Jon Hopkins Jul 24 '09 at 15:06
@Jeffrey: It is entirely their right. But If I am threatened by law to provide them with private details they don't need, guess what right will I as a customer exercise? Right, the right to leave. –  EFraim Jul 24 '09 at 15:06

Of course it is!

It's the web you know, people lie here all the time. Why should I have to provide accurate information?
I use BugMeNot or Mailinator all the time. Most of those forms just lead to more spam anyway otherwise.

(Of course this doesn't count for "serious" accounts like bank accounts, paypal, ebay, ... and even on those I only provide what they really need: if they don't have to send me anything, they don't get my home address and I almost NEVER supply a phone number. Before you know it they'll start spamming you with text messages.)

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You work on a most strange definition of ethics, if you think that because everyone lies, it makes it ethical to lie. Mind you, I don't mean that you aren't right about some of your other assertions, but that first couple of sentences is just wrong. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jul 24 '09 at 18:58
Sure, if you take the question literally, than the only right answer is what Tyrannosaurus said: "No, if you have to spoof it pretty much by definition it can't be ethical." But as this question is tagged "subjective", I thought I'd give my opinion, and that sure is: "Yes, spoof otherwise you get spammed to death". –  fretje Jul 27 '09 at 13:20
@Adriano Varoli Piazza: Well, that depends on your sense of ethics. If we follow sangretu's answer, that would indeed be the case. Note that there's nothing inherently unethical or ethical about anything, it's all a question about how you define your ethics. –  Ilari Kajaste Nov 11 '09 at 12:55

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